Indie Game of the Week 138: Pocket Kingdom

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If I had my druthers and the Indie industry was even busier than it is already, I'd probably rename this feature "Indie explormer of the week" (in this alternative universe, people would also intuitively understand that explormers are exploration-platformers, like Castlevania or Metroid) because I sure do play a lot of them. It's not so much the niche these days as the default. My theory is that the natural evolution of 2D platformers would've eventually lead to most of them having map navigation tools and non-linear exploration baked into their DNA, had the game industry of the late 1990s not segued into 3D platformers and then subsequently into open-world action games like GTA and Assassin's Creed.

Anyway, Pocket Kingdom is one of those. It's a relatively pacifist variety also: like Knytt Underground, its challenges are derived from tricky puzzle-platforming sequences rather than combat. Your stumpy explorer protagonist takes an airship to fruitlessly search for a legendary floating island at the behest of his publishers, only to discover that not only does this mythical suspended landmass exist but has been enchanted in such a way by its guardian deity to make escape impossible. This plays into the game mechanics also: trying to exit a screen by any method other than an obvious door or ladder leads to the player character reappearing on the opposite of the screen, like the tunnels in Pac-Man. This feature, plus gravity switchers, laser beams, blocks to push or pull, and a handful of traversal tools are where most of the gameplay is focused. These puzzles feel deliberate in a way tile-based puzzle-platformers (like, say, Toki Tori) often are: it's more about player placement and manipulating the elements in the space in the right order, rather than relying on platforming skills or timing.

A typical stage. Looks a bit more of a headache than it actually is, in part due to the screen's compactness.
A typical stage. Looks a bit more of a headache than it actually is, in part due to the screen's compactness.

When it isn't tasking you with navigating past insta-death laser beams and Portal-esque infinity falls, the game has some mild Fez aspirations also, planting the seeds of narrative mysteries early on to be solved much later and providing some elusive lore that needs a little more digging to both find and then use to your advantage. Around the moment when these mysteries start to pile up, you get access to an ability that lets you warp to any square on your map, greatly expediting the pace of your exploration and eliminating backtracking in one of the more convenient fast travel systems I've seen. However, it also makes an already short game far quicker to complete: I have seven hours logged after finding everything and earning all the achievements, and there was only one puzzle screen that had me scratching my noodle for longer than fifteen minutes. Still, the puzzles were threatening to get a little on the intense side towards the end there, so I appreciated that it decided to tap out before making me feel like an idiot with nightmare puzzles after nightmare puzzles. That's just courteous.

One thing I'll say about the presentation is that it embraces the littleness of the game in a way that makes it feel like it was a lost GBC/GBA classic; if you go into the settings, switch off the fullscreen, and change the window zoom to 1:1, the window becomes the size of a postage stamp. From the name down to the relatively small grids each screen has to work with - about 16x10 tiles, which isn't a whole lot of wriggle room for the game's many intricate murder mazes - Pocket Kingdom hearkens back to a specific type of video game background: one where, perhaps, the chief video game console of the house was a portable device. There was a time where that was the case for me too: the first console our family owned was an original Nintendo Game Boy bought to keep me busy on a long airplane ride. I specifically remember spending many an evening curled up on the sofa under a lamp trying to reach the end of Link's Awakening or Super Mario Land 2 before it was time for bed. The core of Pocket Kingdom's nostalgic appeal, I think, is recreating that feeling of working your way through a puzzle-heavy action-adventure game in that quiet, comfy, and dimly lit solitude - something the Switch is bringing back in a big way.

Actual size. So dinky!
Actual size. So dinky!

I think Pocket Kingdom has its charms but there's nothing about its gameplay that stands out in any major way. I've seen so many games of its subgenre that it's hard for any of them to surprise me any more, so that ambivalence is partly on me for my insatiable appetite for the things. Per contra I really can't fault the game's controls, presentation, puzzle strength, or quality of life features - they're all well considered and implemented adroitly. I've no doubt I'll forget about it quickly, but it's a solid enough little package.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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